It’s not the data, it’s what you do with it that counts

As an avid fan of The West Wing, I can often relate quotes from the show to real situations. Reading Paul Fain’s “Elusive Data on Education and Workforce” on Inside Higher Ed reminds me of the episode “Two Cathedrals.” In it, Mrs. Landingham says to the President, “You don’t know how to use the intercom.” The President responds, “It’s not that I don’t know how to use it. It’s just that I haven’t learned yet.”

Fain’s summary of a U.S. Government Accountability Office report concludes that data systems fall far short of linking education and workforce after eight years of work and $640 million in spending. Federal grant programs have attempted to establish longitudinal data systems linking K-12, higher education, and employment. It turns out that the shortcomings are not technical—we have adequate database systems. Instead, we need to address public policy around student unit records.

Controversy is rooted in tracking individual students through the education system to employment. Using Social Security numbers as a unique identifier would be more reliable than matching on names and dates of birth, for example. However, the approach raises student privacy concerns and wide opposition by higher education lobbying organizations.

As an academic leader and practitioner, I can attest to the need for higher quality data to inform decisions in the education field. But while student unit records would provide better data, a new system could be subject to misuse and abuse in determining the value of higher education institutions. The conversation should be broadened to a variety of other concerns, particularly for academic leaders engaged in continuous quality improvement.

At the Northeast Ohio Council on Higher Education, our highly acclaimed internship program, NEOintern, connects businesses and college students. One of the best indicators of success is internship and co-op placements. But this statistic remains elusive (except for internships for college credit). And this is challenging for other organizations, including colleges and universities, with internship programs. How can we improve the quality of services we provide if we are unable to track such a basic metric? How do we determine the quality of internships if we don’t know about placements? How do we track the long-term impact of internships on career advancement?

NOCHE protects student privacy, and we would take every measure to continue that practice in a student unit record system. More importantly, we would gain access to data that we could use to improve our programs, which ultimately would lead to more college students landing better jobs.

This is only one example that illustrates the potential benefit of unit records. Even absent a unit record system, I am working with my colleagues at NOCHE and our colleges and universities in Northeast Ohio to improve our internship placement tracking. It’s not that it can’t be done. It just that we haven’t figured it out yet. Let me know how this is true for you.